In the final days of the Game Boy Color’s lifespan, Capcom’s subsidiary, Flagship, and Nintendo collaborated on two installments in the latter’s venerable The Legend of Zelda series: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Both games were released simultaneously in 2001 to a warm reception. The ability to access extra content by linking both games was a novel concept that only added to their appeal. With two successes under their belt that were worthy additions to the Zelda franchise, Capcom began work on a sequel for the Game Boy’s newest model – the Game Boy Advance.
However, before they could begin this project in earnest, a new proposition suspended development. Nintendo was interested in bringing A Link to the Past, popularly considered the series’ greatest 2D installment at the time. Once the port was released in 2002, players discovered it came bundled with a new title: Four Swords. Though more of a bonus feature than a full-fledged game in its own right, Four Swords marked the series’ first foray in multiplayer gameplay. Indeed, in its original form, it could not be played alone. This new feature played a major role in the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past selling over 1.5 million copies.
With staff members freed up, Flagship resumed their initial project. Taking cues from the art style featured in The Wind Waker, this new installment, entitled The Minish Cap, promised to be a quality, original Zelda installment for the Game Boy Advance. It saw its domestic release in November of 2004, and debuted internationally in the months that followed. Interestingly, despite being touted as the Game Boy Advance’s Christmas “killer app” in Europe, The Minish Cap was released shortly after the launch of the Nintendo DS. This was not unlike how the Oracle installments debuted just before the Game Boy Advance’s launch. Regardless, The Minish Cap, like most games in the Zelda franchise, was highly regarded upon release. It was named GameSpot’s Game of the Year for the console in 2005. Does The Minish Cap stand as one of the final hurrahs of the Game Boy product line?
Playing the Game
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers throughout.
A long time ago, the land of Hyrule was nearly consumed by darkness. When all hope seemed lost, tiny creatures known as the Picori descended from the heavens, bestowing unto a young boy dressed in green a legendary blade and a shining golden light. With wisdom and courage, the young boy banished the darkness, and peace reigned once more.
Every one-hundred years, the gateway between the world of humans and the one in which the Picori reside opens. The Picori’s arrival is celebrated in Hyrule with an event called the Picori Festival. Today is when the fair is to begin. Princess Zelda of Hyrule sneaks out of the castle to visit her childhood friend, Link, who is also the grandson of the royal blacksmith. After getting permission, Link is tasked with bringing a sword his grandfather forged to Hyrule’s king. It is to be presented to the winner of a sword-fighting tournament held at the Picori Festival.
Link and Zelda then excitedly hurry to the festival. There, they enjoy the festivities, and Zelda manages to win a drawing, choosing a small shield as her prize. Continuing to the castle, Link and Zelda join up with Minister Potho and the former gives the sword to the king as promised. The winner of the tournament will not only be rewarded with a fine sword, they will have the honor of touching the sacred Picori Blade, which is currently keeping the Bound Chest shut. The champion of the tournament is Vaati, a mysterious man who was somehow able to defeat every single one of his opponents with ease.
Once he appears before the king and the Bound Chest, Vaati makes his evil intentions known. Using his power to break the Picori Blade, he opens the Bound Chest, flooding Hyrule with monsters. He then turns Princess Zelda to stone before fleeing the guards. In the castle, the king, he retainers, and Link meet to discuss how to undo the curse placed upon Zelda. The Picori Blade could break the curse, but because it has been shattered, it is of no use. The king explains that the Picori themselves might be able to fix the sword, but they’re only visible to children. With no one else to turn to, Link takes it upon himself to seek the Picori in the Minish Woods.
The Minish Cap is the first handheld original handheld installment since the Oracle duology. As the same people who developed Four Swords returned for The Minish Cap, the two titles share similar artwork – resembling a 2D interpretation of The Wind Waker. Those who have experienced any of those installments shouldn’t have any problems adjusting to this one. Like the Oracle duology, the game is presented from a top-down perspective, and Link is able to move in eight different directions. Though the port of A Link to the Past had a dedicated sword button to match the original’s interface, The Minish Cap, features an interface similar to that of Link’s Awakening. That is to say, the “A” and “B” buttons can be assigned any item the player so chooses.
If it’s one improvement I can appreciate right away, it’s that the new pause menu makes inventory management much easier. In Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Seasons, and Oracle of Ages, items would leave their slots when assigned to a button. This meant that swapping items would replace it with the one you attempted to equip. Though it was a minor nuisance at worst, it did have the potential to make finding the item the situation called for slightly tedious. In The Minish Cap, all items have an assigned slot that does not change regardless of whether or not they’re equipped, making it very easy to memorize.
Another notable enhancement is that taking advantage of the Game Boy Advance’s shoulder buttons as well as following the lead of the series’ 3D installments, the “R” button’s function changes depending on context. This means you no longer have to equip a Power Bracelet to lift bushes or pots anymore; you can simply walk up to them and press the “R” button. Even better, Link can roll forward when running with a press of the “R” button. Later in the game, you can even have Link perform a special sword strike that takes advantage of this newfound ability.
Unlike in Link’s Awakening, it doesn’t take long for the game’s title to become relevant to the plot. As he explores the Minish Woods, Link happens upon a strange being resembling a hat with the head of a bird being accosted by Octoroks. After fighting off the monsters, the creature introduces himself as Ezlo. He explains that he too is seeking to undo a curse inflicted by Vaati. He then jumps atop Link’s head to accompany him on his quest. The two of them soon come across a stump Ezlo identifies as a Minish Portal. Using his magic, he uses the portal to shrink himself and Link to the size of a Picori. It is here that while humans refer call these beings Picori, they refer to themselves as the Minish. After interacting with the Minish, Link learns that he must explore the kingdom in search of the four elemental artifacts in order to restore the blade’s power.
Ezlo serves two basic functions. He not only allows Link to utilize the Minish Portals, in another aspect directly lifted from the 3D installments, he also provides him with advice on what to do next. This includes when you’re starting a new session. In all honesty, it’s a little unnecessary, though it is nice to have if, for whatever reason, you decide to put the game down for an extended period of time.
Dungeons in Link’s Awakening mostly took after those of the series’ debut. Every single room was exactly the size of the screen and square in shape. A majority of them only consisted of a single story, though secret passageways could lead Link above or below it. Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages were something of a step forward by featuring dungeon rooms that were larger than the screen itself in addition to most of them having multiple floors.
Playing through The Minish Cap reveals that the developers upped the ante yet again as far as dungeons are concerned. To begin with, though the walls of the rooms tend to form perfect 90 or 45 degree angles, they’re not all uniformly the same size or shape. This by itself adds more design variety than in any of its other 2D predecessors. The feeling is only compounded when you enter a barrel in the center of one of the dungeon’s rooms.
Once inside, you can roll it around to access different exits. Considering many gameplay elements from the 3D installments made their way into The Minish Cap, it’s only natural that it would replicate the overall presentation of one as well.
Furthermore, I could tell Flagship went to greater lengths to incorporate the environment into their dungeon designs. The first dungeon gives you a completely new item in the form of the Gust Jar, an artifact that acts like a powerful vacuum. With it, you will find yourself removing spider webs and using it to sail across water on a lily pad. This is perhaps the greatest aspect of The Minish Cap. The superior graphics of the Game Boy Advance weren’t just used to give the handheld series a presentation upgrade – they’re actively used to pull off effects and introduce mechanics simply not possible on the Game Boy Color.
In a way, Ezlo’s ability to access the Minish Portals continues Flagship’s pattern of adding a gimmick when it comes to overworld exploration. Though the ability to shrink in size doesn’t sound as impressive as changing the seasons or traveling back and forth through time, this gimmick does have one advantage over those of its two predecessors. In Oracle of Seasons, the ability to change seasons only affected how one explored the overworld; in no dungeon was the ability ever required to progress. This wasn’t quite the case in Oracle of Ages with its sixth dungeon, which you were made to explore in both the past and the present to reach the boss. However, as it stands, it was the only substantial time in which the time travel mechanic was used in a dungeon.
Meanwhile, Link’s ability to shrink in size goes far beyond merely giving you extra paths to explore. On overworld screens, you can speak with animals when Link is in his miniaturized state. This allows you to get information you wouldn’t or couldn’t from humans. It’s best to take caution, however, as Link have to deal with new obstacles in this state. Predatory animals might try to eat him and he must avoid getting pelted with raindrops, which are now the size of boulders.
Better yet, the ability to access these portals is extensively used in dungeons. Indeed, in a clever touch, the boss of the first dungeon is an ordinary ChuChu, a blob-like monster that wouldn’t pose a threat to a normal-sized Link. When he is the size of the Minish, on the other hand, Link’s sword merely bounces off the creature. This requires you to use the newfound Gust Jar to topple it, and from there, the monster is vulnerable. This isn’t the only time the gimmick is utilized in dungeons. Some of the later ones require Link to enter in his normal form, meaning he can shrink and enter narrow passageways from there. Some bosses even require Link to shrink to defeat them.
More than anything, I could tell once again that Flagship stopped at nothing to give this game an identity distinct from any other handheld installment. This is evident in how the first three dungeon items Link obtains on his quest are completely new: the Gust Jar, Cane of Pacci, and Mole Mitts. The Cane of Pacci fires a magical beam that flips over any object it hits while the Mole Mitts allow him to dig through dirt walls. One could argue they’re just reinterpretations of earlier items such as the Deku Leaf, the Cane of Somaria, and the shovel, but I think their applications are different enough that they don’t come across as carbon copies.
There are also subtle touches of originality littered throughout the game. The dungeon housing the Water Element is a Minish Portal, meaning that Link essentially enters it from the roof. What the game proceeds to do from there is gently deconstruct how a Zelda dungeon is explored. Early on, you will find the Big Key, which is usually intended to access the room where the boss resides. A savvy player might be tricked into believing that it won’t be accessible for quite some time, but the notion quickly proves not to be true when they procure it in a matter of minutes. Shortly after that, they will have found the matching lock only to learn the element is frozen in a block of ice. From here, they must shine enough light on the block in order to thaw out the element. Unfortunately, this also thaws out the boss: an ordinary Octorok. Despite being the lowest creature the totem pole that is the Zelda bestiary, attempting to defeat it with sheer brute force when the size of a mouse will prove ineffective. Though one technically goes through the same motions to clear this dungeon, I like the extent to which Flagship was willing to experiment with the formula.
Though there are many great things I can say about The Minish Cap all these years later, it’s not without its shortcomings. One of the most heavily criticized aspects of the game comes in the form of Kinstones. These magical stones always spilt into two halves are said to bring good fortune to those who have matching sets. When you approach NPCs, a thought bubble might manifest above their heads. In these situations, you can press the “L” button. From here, if you have the other half of the Kinstone they possess, you can fuse them together. After this, you will see the results of the fusion. What they do varies wildly – they could cause a treasure chest to spawn out of nowhere or a new path to open up. They could even work in more abstract ways, inspiring other NPCs to take certain actions they normally wouldn’t.
In practice, I like the idea of the Kinstones because it encourages players to interact with NPCs using tangible rewards as an incentive. What makes this particularly annoying is that situation in which you desperately want to fuse Kinstones with somebody, but can’t because you happen to lack the other half of the one they have. Over the course of the game, you will find yourself in this situation multiple times. You’re even required to locate certain Kinstones to open doors, though in most of these cases, they’re merely glorified keys, making the quest to acquire them slightly easier to tolerate.
Instead, the real problem with them is that due to the emphasis on story, it’s very easy to permanently lose your chance to fuse Kinstones with certain NPCs. To wit, around the halfway point of the game, the king falls under Vaati’s influence. As it so happens, the king is another person with whom you can fuse Kinstones. Because there’s no real reason to visit the king after he asks Link to venture to the Minish Woods, many players could be unaware this is even possible. Some fusions even prevent others, meaning you must perform them in a certain order. There’s also one fusion that opens up a portal to a large mansion to which you won’t have proper access until much later. Here, a bedridden person is being haunted by a ghost. If you do not get rid of it with the Gust Jar, the NPC will die by the time you eventually access the building through the front door, depriving you of the chance to obtain a powerful weapon. These consequences are admittedly minimal considering that fulfilling these scenarios are not required to complete the game. Still, I can imagine it would be quite irritating for anyone attempting to go for 100% completion blind.
In a tangential sense, this ties into the biggest problem I have with The Minish Cap – there are only six dungeons – the last of which is where the final battle against Vaati takes place. As you are only made to find four artifacts to advance the plot unlike in the previous handled installments, all of which featured eight such items, one could get the impression that there is a second set of dungeons awaiting them after fully restoring the Picori Blade. This would be similar to how A Link to the Past made you find three pendants before revealing there were eight more dungeons to clear, punctuated by the fact that the first of them was labeled “Level 1”. The Minish Cap sort of pulls something like this off in how the Wind Element doesn’t turn out to be in the dungeon marked on the map, but other than that, what you see is what you get.
The low number of dungeons isn’t by itself a bad thing. Indeed, Majora’s Mask stands as one of the best games in the series, and it only had four. With that in mind, the question becomes “How did Majora’s Mask get away with having such few dungeons when The Minish Cap doesn’t?” The answer is actually rather straightforward. What the dungeons in Majora’s Mask lacked in quantity, they more than made up for in quality. The very first dungeon matched the one that marked the beginning of its direct predecessor’s second half in terms of difficulty. Not only that, but just reaching them forced players to engage with the material as they learned of each region’s denizens and what they needed to do to save everyone from the problems plaguing the land. If nothing else, the sidequests in Majora’s Mask were particularly intriguing because they breathed life into its side characters in ways few artists have managed to successfully replicate.
In The Minish Cap, the dungeons, though more intricate in design than in the preceding 2D titles, are still simpler than a vast majority of their 3D counterparts and the sidequests don’t quite provide enough substance to make up for the fact that there are only six of them. Though this doesn’t make for a terrible experience by any means, it’s something of a shame that The Minish Cap didn’t take cues from A Link to the Past. The 2D games were at their best whenever they produced a high number of dungeons to make up for their relative simplicity compared to the 3D ones. This game attempted to adapt sensibilities from the 3D installments, but the missing third dimension caused a something important to be lost in translation.
Analyzing the Story
Though The Minish Cap is the fourth installment in the series to debut on a handheld console discounting the Four Swords campaign on the A Link to the Past port, in a lot of ways, it’s better to think of it as the first truly standalone 2D title since Link’s Awakening. Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, though separate games from each other, were intended to be played together. Meanwhile, Four Swords Adventures deviates from the series’ formula to the extent that one could declare it a spinoff.
Why is this semantical description relevant when it comes to parsing the narrative of The Minish Cap? The answer is simple. With the last entirely standalone 2D Zelda installment being Link’s Awakening, any deep discussions of its story are inevitably going to pit its narrative against that of The Minish Cap. The game even seems to subtlety encourage this with its sound effects lifted directly from Link’s Awakening.
Boasting one of the most ambitious scenarios of its day, I can imagine a significant number of fans would say that Link’s Awakening utterly trounces The Minish Cap when it comes to story. Though Link’s Awakening was one of the most important entries in the series exactly for allowing the medium’s storytelling prowess to improve, I would have to side with The Minish Cap in this particular comparison. Although I have little doubt that Link’s Awakening had a more thought-provoking premise, it ultimately overreached, causing the narrative to cave in on itself. Its fatal flaw was that the narrative did not benefit from having a silent protagonist – an understandable consequence considering the staff’s interest in crafting a story with such a level of introspection was unprecedented.
Though The Minish Cap has a more straightforward story about an evil person Link must stop, it succeeds for the opposite reason why Link’s Awakening could be said to have failed – it’s a simple concept done well. Though The Minish Cap may not have a twist as shocking as the biggest one in Link’s Awakening, Ezlo’s backstory provides a greater amount of context for the series as a whole.
Ezlo was a renowned Minish craftsman and sage. His greatest piece was a cap that would grant the wishes of whoever wears it. He intended for the cap to be a gift to the humans for the Picori Festival, but his apprentice, Vaati, had other plans. As soon as he finished his work, Vaati stole it from him, using its power to turn himself into a powerful sorcerer. Ezlo’s attempts at stopping him were in vain, and Vaati used his newfound power to transform his mentor into the form of a cap. It was his fruitless pursuit of his former student that led him to encounter Link.
The Minish themselves are a great addition to the series. By the end, you get a sense of how they adapt to their environments whether they live in the forest or reside in the rafters in buildings. There is one gag involving them I enjoyed that involved the random items such as hearts and rupees you find cutting bushes or grass. Specifically, this game reveals that the Minish hide those items in plants for humans to find. Such a development is usually just accepted without question by virtue of being in a video game, so having an explanation for why they’re there is both amusing and interesting.
The name Vaati is not an unfamiliar one to those who played Four Swords or Four Swords Adventures, being the primary antagonist of both games |– though he’s delegated to being the secondary antagonist at the last minute of the latter|. Anyone fresh off of those games know that when he is announced as the tournament’s winner, things are about to take a turn for the worse. They would be taken aback when Vaati appears to be a human, but that shred of doubt is dashed the second he stops hiding his malevolence and turns Zelda to stone.
What I like about his origin story is how for the span of two games, you were led to believe from his sparse dialogue in Four Swords that he was a generic demonic overlord. His complete lack of dialogue in Four Swords Adventures only seemed to enforce this perception. The Minish Cap then proceeds to give him an origin story few would be able to see coming. When players are introduced to the Minish, they could never imagine that the peaceful species who gave the ancient hero a weapon to smite the ultimate evil would produce such a vile villain. On the other hand, it is a little disappointing that Vaati isn’t given much of a motivation for being so evil. The closest players get to an explanation is an easily missed secondhand source claiming that he had always been fascinated with the evil living in the hearts of men. Even so, taking the mystique away from a villain is a difficult proposition. In this case, I argue Vaati didn’t work as a generic ancient evil, so giving him an actual background was a step in the right direction.
Vaati appearing as a human and not the familiar demonic abomination most players knew him as could trick them into believing that he had escaped the seal and was taking a more subtle approach this time around. Naturally, this turns out to not be the case, and the foreshadowing to the eventual reveal is handled very well. After the Picori Blade is repaired, he can infuse it with the two elements he has collected at that point. When he does so, the sword gives him the ability to make use of magical tiles to temporarily split into multiple copies of himself. Together, he and his copies can accomplish tasks Link couldn’t alone such as pushing large boulders or holding down switches that require a simultaneous depression to activate. With each new element, he can make an additional copy, and when the sword has been infused with all four, its true name is revealed.
What I particularly like about the setup is how little the game advertises itself as a prequel to Four Swords. It stands to reason; obviously, the legend behind the Four Sword didn’t exist at this point in time. In this game, you get to make the legend yourself.
The location where the final battle takes place happens to be near the shrine where you infuse the elements into the sword. Better yet, the elements look exactly like the statues in front of the sword’s eventual resting place in Four Swords. While The Minish Cap may not have the best story in the franchise, it uses its established canon to a great effect, adding a lot of context to games with otherwise threadbare plots.
Drawing a Conclusion
As far as 2D installments in the long-running Zelda franchise go, The Minish Cap doesn’t quite capture that certain something A Link to the Past had, but it is a welcome addition to the franchise nonetheless. Similarly, though it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the series’ 3D installments, Capcom and Flagship handled the conversion of their conventions well – even if some ideas didn’t quite work in practice. Once again, those two teams knew what allowed the franchise to enjoy such a level of success nearly two decades after its debut. Similar to the Oracle duology, I give everyone involved in this project a lot of credit for capturing the spirit of the franchise while also not feeling obligated to go through the same motions as its predecessors. In doing so, The Minish Cap also avoids the trap Link’s Awakening fell victim to by not coming across as a downgraded version of A Link to the Past.
When it comes to parsing the receptions of the series’ 2D installments, The Minish Cap generally doesn’t receive as much attention as A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening. Its gameplay may not have pushed the same boundaries as A Link to the Past and its narrative may not boast the sheer amount of innovation as that of Link’s Awakening, but ignoring it would be doing yourself a major disservice. If you’re looking for a quality 2D Zelda experience you may have overlooked, The Minish Cap is for you. Following in the footsteps of Link’s Awakening, it continued to demonstrate that handheld games could be more than just mindless ways to pass the time while traveling.
Final Score: 7/10